The story of Michael Rizzo is only one of the growing numbers of seminarians today who discerned the call to the priesthood and entered the vocation at a much later stage in life.
Rizzo is an educated man.
Thereafter, he pursued advanced education and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1984.
Rizzo eventually got married in 1985 and repositioned to Oregon to raise a family, and likewise embarked a successful career in law, banking, and finance. He named his son John.
His brilliance and sophistication cemented several top senior executive positions in the last 25 years, including the management of major business units, legal affairs, compliance, and operations.
Rizzo prospered in handling approximately $4.5 billion in assets, hundreds of thousands of contracts and customers, and close to a thousand employees.
He lived a prominent life until his wife died unexpectedly in February 2012.
During his bereavement, he knelt in prayer asking God what to do.
Looking forward, Rizzo will be ordained as a priest in 2019 at the age of 59.
He entered the Orange County Diocese Affiliate, Mount Angel Abbey Seminary in Oregon at the age of 54.
“Here in the seminary, about 12 of us are over the age of 40. Several are married previously and with children,” confessed Rizzo.
The Priestly Discernment Process
“I wanted to give myself to God completely,” said Rizzo.
Upon the death of his wife, Rizzo grasped the love of God and sought to offer his life sacrificing for him.
Like any lawyer, he investigated the idea of becoming a priest yet uncertain if it was even possible.
Rizzo resorted to an active prayerful life to ascertain if the priesthood was what he was destined to do.
Veronica Ayson works at the St Peter Channel’s Spiritual Exercises Program. She explained that participants of the spiritual exercises usually develop a greater love for Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Scriptures; which results to an intense prayer life and closer examination of conscience.
“Rizzo clearly experienced a motion from the Holy Spirit, an invitation. He responded generously by taking time away from his normal activities and dedicating that time exclusively listening to God — in order to allow God the time and space to show what he should do,” said Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D.
Bartunek authored several books. He is active with online retreats at RC Spirituality and Q&As about the spiritual life at RC Spiritual Direction. He received his B.A. from Stanford University in 1990 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010.
He also provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” and he has contributed religious commentaries on NBC, CNN, FOX, EWTN, and BBC.
According to Bartunek, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola invites the participants to meditate and reflect deeply on some of the major truths of the faith. He added that the participants arrive at deeper convictions and greater clarity with their relationship with God.
“God needs to reveal ourselves to ourselves in order for us to be in a position to truly hear his voice in our hearts. The Spiritual Exercises, therefore, are often used when someone is seeking to discern their calling in life,“ said Bartunek.
In an article of Edward McCormack, Ph.D, he wrote that before the Exercises, a participant may have related to Jesus as a distant acquaintance; but thereafter, the Exercises helped him hear and respond to Christ’s call at each moment in his life.
Ultimately, Rizzo completed the program five times, each time sinking deeper to the embrace of God. He immersed totally and received the gift of spiritual consolation.
“It was a very powerful experience. It felt so perfect. It felt so right. I felt strongly connected with God, I felt so peaceful and I felt so complete in my decision to be a priest,” Rizzo professed sincerely.
Orange County Opens Door to Older Seminarians
Rizzo received the call while residing in Orange County, Southern Calif.
Coincidentally, Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange County just opened his doors to accepting older men discerning the priesthood provided they are residents of the diocese.
This new initiative paved the way for Rizzo.
The Diocese found him to be a viable candidate.
His maturity, advanced education, life experiences, wisdom, and love to serve God all signified good candidacy for the priesthood.
“He also has a lot to offer in terms of his approach to business and management, and he can help bring the church forward with his acquired skills and expertise from the modern world,” said Moneypenny.
His son John Rizzo, now in his college years, initially said, “Dad you will be bored.”
Soon after, he turned supportive realizing his father’s spiritual service will benefit many people of God.
Rizzo applied in the fall of 2013 and received acceptance in the spring of 2014.
He is now finishing his second semester taking philosophy courses and will soon begin his list of Theology classes.
Because of his past credentials, he can be ordained as a priest in just five to six years.
Older Men Want to Become Priests
Nowadays, the Catholic Church welcomes more men like Michael Rizzo, who listened to the invitation of God and discerned the call to enter the priesthood after having a successful career in the secular world.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, self-identified Catholics in America increased by more than 31 million since 1965. However, the report also stated that the number of priests declined by 20,000 and because of that, 3,496 parishes currently exist without a resident pastor. As a result, an article from National Catholic Register in July 2013 stated that, “there is an increasing need for priests to serve the…Church.”
Much as accepting older men in the Orange County Diocese is fairly recent, and while some American dioceses still do not accept men over the age of 40; there are seminaries elsewhere in America, and even in the rest of the world, that have been welcoming older entrants to the seminary for many years now.
The prominent one is Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis.
It is North America’s largest Catholic seminary focused on preparing older men for the priesthood.
“Sacred Heart has admitted older men in the seminary since the late ‘70s — running four decades now. We have the expertise and experience in forming older men to the priesthood,” said Jonathan Drayna, the director of communications at Sacred Heart Seminary.
At Sacred Heart, men are eligible to enter the vocation at any age, as long as he is single, widowed or annulled in the eyes of the church upon his entrance; and his children are older than 18.
Drayna stated that much as the older seminarians are direct and/or indirect answers to the shortage of the priests — it is really about accepting the truth that God is also calling older men to serve his church and his people.
Below is the portion of the Drayna’s phone interview where he talked about delayed discernment:
“This is nothing new per se, look at some of the apostles, they were called to enter the ministry after they have established careers elsewhere [fishermen]. There is a parallel to be drawn about God calling you to put away your work tools — leave your fishing nets aside and follow him,” said Drayna.
Likewise in Europe, Pontifical Beda College in Rome supports mature vocations. They have seminarians between the ages of 30 and 70. These men were significantly successful in the early stages of their lives and they took the courage to start anew. Some of them are fathers and grandfathers.
Pontifical Beda College considered these men as “gifts” to the church, adding that it is not too late to join the priesthood.
On Dec. 5, 2011, CNN reported that, “according to a decade-long study by the Association of Theological Schools on seminarian enrollment, the fastest-growing group of seminarians include those older than 50.” The report claimed that in 1995, baby boomers made up 12 percent of the seminarians, while in recent times they are up to 20 percent.
Likewise, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal dated May 19, 2013, a “growing numbers of people saw retirement as a chance to ‘do good’ and were turning to divinity schools and more spiritual life, where they have become the fastest-growing age group in recent years.” It further stated that for many, the answer was embracing faith—and devoting their lives to serving others.
In this modern era of social media, Twitter has hashtags #vocations, #priesthood, and #seminarians where an avalanche of up-to-date news flourish regarding priestly formation, including the increase in older seminarians. This creates spontaneous and exponential awareness to the public, and may indicate a substantial impact in the near future.
Are They Too Old?
Fr. Mathew Sukchen, a priest from Orissa, India, claimed that he personally have known of a seminarian who entered the seminary much older in life.
His name was Fr. George Thekkekara. He was his former English professor. Thekkekara lived and taught in America. When his wife died, he returned to India for retirement and became a teacher. Along the way, he discerned a calling for priesthood and Thekkekara became a priest at the age of 83.
“He was a very intelligent priest and a very effective one — unfortunately, he died a year or two after his ordination,” said Sukchen.
The issue regarding seminarians being too old is an open concern.
“If one is too old, what active service can he provide? If he cannot serve, what then is the use?” asked Sukchen.
Sukchen, however, reiterated that God works in mysterious ways. God has reasons for everything.
“Who is to say one should be, or cannot be a priest?…only God can,” said Sukchen.
This was also the concern expressed by Moneypenny in Orange County.
“That is why we encourage older men to already have college or advanced degrees, and be ordained by the age of 60, for practical and realistic reasons,” said Moneypenny.
Are They Still Formable?
There is always the concern that these older men are already fully established in life — raising the question of susceptibility to change and transformation. Will they be obedient to the constraints in freedom?
According to an article in The Catholic World Report dated April 15, 2014, an older man can have difficulty in meeting the demands of the priesthood or giving up the freedom. It further admitted that when people age, they often become more set in their ways, and might struggle in adapting to the life of a priest; or find it a challenge to place himself under the authority of a bishop.
Furthermore, according to an article in National Catholic Register dated July 27, 2103, one immediate challenge could be hitting the books again after having been out of the academic sphere for a while — in addition to some obvious cases where health issues come into play.
“[Knowingly,] these are some of the areas that we pay close attention to before admitting an older man to the seminary,” said Moneypenny.
Rizzo agreed that the complete transition in life was an initial struggle. He used to live in a house with a certain amount of independence and different priorities.
“For the love of God, you really have to offer your life to be a priest. Be prepared to surrender your past life and open up to the possibility of being a priest completely, and be very aware that it is a very different kind of life,” said Rizzo.
Are their Children Old Enough?
“We also look into consideration the real status of their children. Will they be able to live independently without the support of their father?” stated Moneypenny.
“Always at the back of my mind, I still worry about my son. I should never forget or distance myself from my responsibility as a father to my son,” said Rizzo.
His nearly 22-year-old son John Rizzo is graduating from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in Chemistry and will then move to New York City to attend a Graduate’s Program at Columbia University, this coming fall 2015.
Rizzo’s relationship with his son remains strong. He commented that he talks to his son almost every day.
“Even if I were not entering the seminary, we would be 3,000 miles apart. Nonetheless, our relationship will not change. I have seen no signs that he feels or ever felt alone,” said Rizzo.
Rizzo is consoled that everyday his son needs him less and less; and his vocation needs him increasingly.
“I still remain his father, and he my son; but at some point, I won’t be as available and flexible to him anymore, and he understands that,” said Rizzo.
The Future of Priesthood
There are still many issues plaguing the priesthood today such as: sexual abuse, the priest shortage, lack of church attendance, diminished roles of priests in the community, the rise of the Nones, the decline of religion in the younger population, and celibacy.
Rizzo stated that:
“Celibacy is certainly an issue and it takes years for a young man to attain peace on that. They struggle for a fact that their lives will be different from what they imagined it to be. There is too much pressure in the world today that is so much against to what the decision these young men are facing. Some are not as confident with their decision and decide to leave. I can’t criticize them because it is a very hard decision to make, it is daunting,” empathized Rizzo.
According to Rizzo, the very committed younger seminarians are modern day heroes. They accepted the life of the priesthood early and they are doing it a 100 percent.
“They should be respected,” said Rizzo.
Sociologically, the dynamics of the church today is also changing.
Dr. Michele Dillon, Ph.D., a sociology professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, stated that the role of the priest used to be at the center of the Catholic individual and communal/parish life, and that has changed considerably over recent decades.
Dillon also authored many books on Sociological Theories, Religion, and Catholic Identity.
Dillon emphasized that priests still matter — and provide a great deal of liturgical celebration for, and pastoral care to, many people.
“However, the role of the priest as a figure has become more of a one-to-one personal relationship rather than being the central/anchoring figure in the parish/community,” said Dillon.
There are also psychological issues governing the vocation of the priesthood that must be addressed in order to facilitate effective relationships between fellow priests and the community.
Psychological assessment has been an integral part of the screening process to determine the psychological health of men interested in the priesthood.
Nicoli (Nikki) Tucker, LMFT, M.A. is a licensed therapist in California with nearly 20 years of experience in priestly counseling and psychological testing. She is familiar with issues facing the priesthood and the religious.
Based on her personality tests, Tucker found that:
“These issues might be surprising because the public put them on a pedestal. People expect them to be more holy than what they really are. In the eyes of the public, they are forbidden to have a bad day, and that is a huge psychological issue,” said Tucker.
Tucker stated that it is difficult to be a priest because the expectations are so high, and there is loneliness when there is too much expectation.
“Many priests are lonely. Some are very lonely,” revealed Tucker.
Tucker added that priests also have issues with different levels of maturity. She stated that it takes a lot of time to reach maturity, and maturity is crucial in the priesthood.
She expressed that maturity is fully developed by the age of 50 or 60. The younger seminarians between the ages of 20 -40 are still full of ideas and they are so young that they still need to fight and conquer. Nevertheless, Tucker stressed that the church needs younger priests to move the church forward. Likewise, the church needs older priests to maintain stability.
“They really need to be flexible to co-exist with each other; otherwise obedience and humility can be compromised,” said Tucker.
Tucker also commented that the media has overblown the sex abuse scandal.
“This issue scared a lot of the priests and it made it harder for them to do their job because they are afraid of being accused. There are far more better priests doing good in the community than the magnified abusers,” said Tucker.
These stated emotional, psychological, sociological, and spiritual issues will still likely confront the seminarians when they eventually serve their parishes.
“In our seminary [Sacred Heart], we take advantage of the richness of the older men’s experiences and maturity. We assimilate them effectively to their formation program, to better prepare them for their pastoral ministries and for the diversified challenges the modern church is facing today,” said Drayna.
“This is where the maturity and modern exposure of older seminarians come into play. They can handle their emotions and face the issues better,” said Tucker.
The Formation Years
Nevertheless, like all seminarians, older or of traditional age, Rizzo undergoes the same stages of priestly formation.
Fr. Ron Hicks from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the former Dean of Formation at Mundelein Seminary explained that all seminaries in America must follow faithfully the book issued by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB): “Program Of Priestly Formation (PPF) Fifth Edition. “
According to the article, A Change in Formation, from American Magazine dated Jan. 2, 2012, the new edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (2006) emphasized the human formation of seminarians, especially regarding celibacy. Furthermore, the new edition reflected the bishops’ response to the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of minors, saying explicitly for the first time that no seminary applicant is to be accepted if he has been involved in sexual abuse of minors.
Below is the video courtesy of Mundelein Seminary, Illinois, where Hicks explained the four stages of priestly formation:
Older Seminarians Make Great Priests
“Men ordained at an older age actually make great priests because of their mature commitment to loving God and serving God’s people; and their past experiences enhance their pastoral effectiveness,” said Drayna.
Drayna added that these men have diversified organizational and business experiences; they already acquired excellent people, administrative and budgeting skills that are vital in managing parishes, people, and facilities effectively – tasks often deemed troublesome for some younger seminarians.
According to the article, Seminary’s Older Vocation Boom, there is already a proven track record that men who responded to a call later in life bring wisdom, talents, and unique experiences to the priesthood. It added that these men show a zeal and motivation to work very hard at their priestly formation, which enable them to eventually respond fully to their duties as priests.
“The retention rate is also much higher for these older seminarians,” said Drayna.
According to Drayna, based on the book of the late Dr. Dean Hoge, Ph.D., “The First Five Years of Priesthood’ (Liturgical Press, 2002), only 2 percent had left the priesthood after an average of about 12 years of service, in contrast to the five-year attrition rate of 12 percent for the U.S. younger priest population at large.
“This high retention rate was an extraordinary outcome, and such high level of satisfaction and enthusiasm certainly contributed to their enduring service as priests,” said Sister Katarina Schuth, Ph.D., the author of, “A Study of Priests Ordained from Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners, WI, and Saint John XXIII National Seminary, Weston, MA (2011).”
Schuth is an internationally renowned sociologist with a doctorate in Cultural Geography and a respected researcher on seminary education and priestly ministry. She has worked with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University on many of their studies on the priestly ministry and seminary preparation.
Schuth added that the Catholic Priests ordained over the age of 40 served for decades, and are likely to provide nearly as many years of service to the church, on average, as men ordained in their 20s. She further stated that they are more likely to serve additional years beyond the typical priest retirement age of 70.
Meanwhile, on the hilltop of Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, dwells Rizzo, entrusting completely his life with God.
Rizzo enjoys his seminarian life. His fellow seminarians inspire him. He experiences brotherhood, peace, and holiness.
He states that people need to realize that a seminarian life is a joyful life.
His advice to older men who contemplate the priesthood is to first say yes to the invitation; and God will do the rest, just like what he did.
Lastly, the thought of his ordination excites him daily.
“I can’t wait to be a priest. I will be a priest as many years as the Lord gives me. I don’t have as many years to give as the younger guys, but I will give the ones I am capable of giving as much as I can, and that is for sure,” Rizzo ends with sincerity.
Note about the Author:
Joe Quintana is a multimedia journalist, with a master’s degree in New Media Journalism.